Using breathing techniques to calm anxiety

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There is growing scientific evidence that breathing techniques can help you get your anxiety under control. These techniques are useful in helping with stress, anxiety and insomnia. In this video, I’m going to talk about how controlled breathing helps … and show you a basic technique that you can do on your own.

Ideas like controlling your breathing, and using your breath to chant … in order to calm yourself down and get into a better state have been around for years … and I used to think that it was all a bit “hippie” and fantastical. But, surprisingly, there is growing scientific evidence to support the theory that it really works.

One idea, that comes from some branches of yoga is alternate nostril breathing – breathing through one nostril for one breath … and the other nostril for the next breath. Or breathing in through one nostril and out through the other.

Chanting “om” is another breathing practice from way back. Taking a deep breath, then slowly chant the word “om” … “Ooooooommmmmmmmmmmmmmmm”

“Follow your breath” is a modern mindfulness exercise. First controlling your breathing – breathing slowly in, hold for a moment, breathe out slowly and hold for a moment. Then just focussing your mind on your breath, paying attention to the feel of it as you breathe in and out.

We see this pattern of exercises that focus attention on breath, and consciously controlling and slowing the breath. These exercises come from all sorts of different places. So does it work … and what is actually going on?

We all know that as our emotions change, our body can change with it. You can generally get an idea of someone’s emotions just by looking at them – are they smiling, frowning, is there tension in the shoulders … or have they dropped down into a relaxed position.

When we are stressed or anxious about something, our sympathetic nervous system comes into play. The brain sends signals to the body to along the sympathetic nervous system to tell it to get ready to deal with something dangerous. Our heart rate increases, our breathing rate increases, our muscles tense and so on. And for this reason, the sympathetic nervous system is sometimes known as the “fight-or-flight nervous system”.

Conversely, when we are relaxed, content and happy. When we are doing something enjoyable like eating or having sex, the brain sends signals to our body along the parasympathetic nervous system. So the parasympathetic nervous system is sometimes colloquially known as the “feed-and-breed nervous system.”

It is less well known that these nervous systems work the other way round too. If our body changes, it engages one of these nervous systems, and our emotions can change as a response. Now, not many people are able to consciously slow their own heart rate down, but we can consciously change our breathing patterns. When you focus attention on your breathing so as to make it slower and more regular, it mimics the pattern you get when you’re relaxed. This stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which calms your emotions.

There have been a number of scientific studies to demonstrate that this works. When you focus on slowing down the breathing, the activity in your amygdala – which is the part of the brain dealing with anxiety – reduces. And the activity in the prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain dealing with rational thinking and executive function – increases. And in this way, you can become calmer and less stressed.

So how do you apply this controlled breathing technique – what do you actually do?

There may be certain highly stressful situations where you can use a controlled breathing technique to calm you down – just before something important, like an exam or interview. If you have difficult falling asleep – then use it when you are lying in bed ready to go to sleep.

You can also use it as a regular everyday practice to help reduce the general stresses and anxiety of the day. This is sometimes called the “365 technique”. Do it every day – 365 days a year.
3 – the number of sessions you do it every day
6 – roughly the number of breaths you take in a minute
5 – the number of minutes you do it at each session

So, 5 minutes sessions, 3 times a day, 365 days a year. In each session, breath roughly 6 times a minute – that’s about 10 seconds a breathe – breath in for the count of 4 or 5, breath out for the count of 5 or 6. Some people say it is better to have a longer out-breathe than in-breathe. That’s the 365 technique.

So it could go something like this

In … 2 … 3 … 4
Out… 2 … 3 … 4 … 5 … 6
In … 2 … 3 … 4
Out… 2 … 3 … 4 … 5 … 6
In … 2 … 3 … 4
and so on for about 5 minutes.

Have a go, you never know, it might work for you.

My name is Tim Maude. I help people who are only just coping. I use hypnotherapy to help get rid of the negative effects of stress and anxiety.



Photo by Max van den Oetelaar on Unsplash

Tim Maude

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